Saturday, 14 May 2016

"Sticktooativeness": Discipline, Freedom & The Spiritual Life

For reasons way beyond my understanding there’s a word that keeps on tapping on the window of my consciousness. The word is “Discipline”. It’s one of the words that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. There’s a part of me that doesn’t like it. Especially when I think of the spiritual life. I much prefer words like freedom and love.

Oh yes “discipline” is one of the words that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I know I’m not alone. I heard a friend expressing the very same sentiment the other day. Yet strangely enough he is a disciplined man and has been for a quite a few years. Guess what as a result he enjoys greater spiritual freedom, joy and love than he has ever done before. As a result he is able to give himself fully to life, to enjoy all that blessings that come his way and to better deal with the many difficulties that also come his way. One thing about any life is that it is balanced, we all have our blessings and our curses. One day it rains and the next there is sunshine. Some days we get the perfect mixture of both and get a rainbow.

Now how is my friend able to live more fully than he has ever done before? You may well ask. Well through discipline. Through trying spiritual practices and sticking with them he has achieved freedom, joy and happiness. Simple!

One thing about my generation and those that have followed, I reckon, is that we want things easy. We want joy and love and freedom, but I am not convinced that we are always prepared to do the work required, well not consistently at least. Maybe this is one of the reasons that there is a growing spiritual vacuum in so many of our lives; maybe this is why so many of us live increasingly dissatisfied lives these days, even though we are more blessed materially than in previous generations. Maybe things come too easily these days, maybe they are not gained through striving, through effort. The truth is that all things of worth in life require effort, not just bursts of enthusiasm but consistent, daily, loving effort. What Dr Bob one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous described, when referring to what was required to achieve recovery, as “sticktooativeness”. The key was to stick with it, stick to it no matter what is going on around you.

Now of course to stick to anything requires discipline.

We want freedom, well who doesn’t. Freedom though requires discipline and also a sense of belonging. My own Unitarian tradition is often criticised as being wishy washy as lacking depth of having no real discipline. How often have I heard the critique, you Unitarians can believe whatever you want, that there is no commitment to anything, not even each other.

Is this true? No I don’t think so. We are about community, we are about commitment. We are about coming together in love.

This critique of the tradition that chose me brings to mind a story my brother loves to tell of a time when he and his wife were being driven around Dallas in a taxi and the driver pointing to a church and saying “That church is a Unitarian Universalist church and those folks can believe whatever they like”, my brother recounts that this was said in an utterly bemused tone. My brother’s response was oh yes “My brother is a Unitarian”. I think for the first time in his entire life the taxi driver went silent.

By the way as a kind of counter to this thought I have heard many Unitarians say "We don’t so much believe what we like, we believe what me must." I certainly believe what life compels me to believe. I once believed in nothing. These days I believe in everything and that little bit more than everything.

I remember once watching an episode of the cartoon series “The Simpsons” in which the church pastor Rev Lovejoy offers the Simpson children a bowl of Unitarian ice cream. When one of the children replies that the bowl is empty his response is that this is the point. The bowl is empty. He is saying there is nothing in it. It is an empty vessel which will not feed or sustain you.

Now I don’t believe and have certainly not found this to be true, but it is certainly how some view the Unitarian faith. They say anything goes, we lack the discipline of what some would consider a real faith. That our tradition asks so little of our members. I have not found this to be true. In many ways it is harder to be a Unitarian as we come together in love and be with people who come to faith in very different ways. I would say that this requires a special kind of loving discipline. To accept our neighbour exactly as they are and not as we would have them be, is not easy at all and yet this is what we celebrate, what we rejoice in.

One thing that we are about is “Belonging”. We say come as you are, exactly as you are. All are welcome here, you belong here. Belonging is a vital aspect of our tradition. In fact I would say that before you can be free you must first of all belong. To quote Galen Guengerich “Freedom comes when we find ourselves in a place that sustains us, and among people who nurture us. Life is, first and foremost, a collaborative endeavor.” The Unitarian tradition is about freedom of conscience and freedom of belief but is also about community and coming together in love. I know from personal experience that freedom only comes from a sense that you truly belong. To live freely you must first belong to life itself and the world and community in which you find yourself. In so doing you will truly come to belong to yourself and you will be free.

Now belonging requires discipline. I suspect that the reason people prefer to describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious today is linked to this dislike of discipline and belonging of becoming too involved in something. After all discipline is linked to disciple to one who follows. Many spiritually minded people these days do not like to be followers, they want to follow their own path and not blindly follow someone else’s. It doesn’t need to be like that. You can still be disciplined, you can still belong and yet retain your own sense of self. You can still be free. Discipline and belonging are not about blindly following someone or something. It is about consciously following a simple way that will enable us to live with a sense of connection and enable us to engage in this our shared world and contribute wholeheartedly in our shared mutuality.

Discipline, I have come to believe plays a vital role in spiritual freedom and spiritual community.

I am currently attempting to get fit, I mean properly fit. The reasons for this are many fold. Yes I’ve lost weight and this certainly took “sticktooativeness” and following a suggested plan. Now I feel it is time to develop my physical well being so I can be of maximum service to the people around me, so I can truly serve.

I have joined a gym and am working out most days. I am not doing it blindly though. I am working with a personal trainer who has developed a program for me and within a month I have already improved no end. So you could say I am kind of his disciple, if only for a short while, and when I feel confident enough I will be able to go my own way. I am not leaning or depending on him though. It is up to me. The work is mine to do and I am sticking with it.

Now some of the things I am engaging in seem a little odd to me, they don’t make sense. That said I trust and am engaging. I am reminded of one of my favourite childhood films each time I arrive at the gym. The film is “The Karate Kid?”

In the film a young lad named Daniel is beaten up by a gang of bullies. An old Japanese man named Mr Miyagi saves him from them and offers to help him to learn Karate, so he can defend himself. This he does and after many trials and tribulations Daniel not only learns Karate but becomes a champion.

The path to becoming a champion is by no means an easy one though and Daniel, or Daniel-San nearly gives up many times, but he does stick with it. My sisters fond nick name for me over the years has been “Daniel-San”...there are worse things to be called.

“The Karate Kid” is the classic hero’s tale; it is full of trials and tribulations. When Daniel first goes to Mr Miyagi he expects him to teach him how to fight immediately, but this does not happen. Instead he gets him to clean and wax his car, by practising specific motions “Wax on, wax off...wax on, wax off” He then gets him to paint a fence and polish a floor, all by hand, all applying simple hand motions. He also reminds him to breathe; he continues to remind him to breathe. After several days of this Daniel is worn out and decidedly unhappy. He thinks Mr Miyagi has taken him for a mug. After an argument he storms off, but Mr Miyagi calls him back and begins to perform some Karate moves which Daniel finds he can easily block.

Finally Daniel-San sees the purpose behind what he has been doing. He can see that all those seemingly meaningless hours polishing and painting etc have equipped him to block the punches and kicks when they come. He can see some tangible results to all his hard work. Daniel-San continues with his training and at the end of the film he becomes the hero as he beats the bullies in the competition and of course he also gets the girl.

It is the same with spiritual disciplines. They may not seem like an obvious aid to growing and developing as human beings and serving one another and life itself. They may also appear restrictive to our being, but they are essential. They are the key to freedom; they are the key to living with gratitude; they are key to truly belonging and welcoming one another in love.

Now the difficulty of course is perhaps in finding what works for each of us as individuals. What works for me, may not work for you. The key is to give things a go and see what comes from doing so. Spiritual discipline is an on-going adventure. It is a conscious means by which we examine, shape and care for our own lives and then serve one another and life itself and truly find a sense of belonging which allows gratitude to develop.

The key is to choose, then embody, a spiritual discipline that brings us a greater love of self of other and of life itself; a discipline that deepens our sense of belonging and gratitude for all that is life. Whether that discipline is simply prayer, or meditation, walking in woods, or star gazing, giving of your time for one another, reading inspirational or devotional books, martial arts, yoga, whatever it may be.

Whatever spiritual discipline we choose there is one quality that is required and that is “sticktooativeness”, consistent effort. To grow spiritually requires effort. It is not merely about achieving temporary highs or a sense of relief. I suppose it’s about being the tortoise and not the hare. It is about plodding on day by day and sticking to it, “waxing off and waxing on.

There are no short cuts or quick results. It’s about “sticktooativeness”

“Sticktooativeness”, spiritual discipline is an essential ingredient to living a truly free life. It allows us to connect to our deeper selves. It develops a sense of belonging and enables us to live with gratitude. It allows us to connect to one another, to all life and to the great mystery that brings all life into being and connects it all together. It is through spiritual discipline that I have found a sense of belonging and developed gratitude. It is through discipline that regardless of my doubts and questions I arise each day and do what I can. I recommend it to all I meet. If you “sticktooit” if you continue to “wax on and wax off” you will know a new freedom, a new joy, a new sense of connection, a deeper belonging than you ever dreamed was possible and a gratitude for simply being alive, for knowing the joy of living in all its mystery.

I offer this final little tale as a final example of "sticktooativeness"

Have you heard of Pablo Casals?

Pablo Casals was born in Vendrell, Spain to a Puerto Rican mother. He was thought to be the greatest cellist who ever lived. His recordings of the Bach Cello Suites, made between 1936 and 1939, are considered unsurpassed even to this day.

Casals’ prodigious musical talent became evident at an early age. By the age of four he could play the violin, piano, and flute, having being taught in church. At the age of eleven he heard the cello for the first time and decided to dedicate himself to that instrument, By the age of fourteen he gave a solo recital in Barcelona. By the age of nineteen he was on the faculty of the renowned Municipal School of Music in Barcelona and was principal cellist of the Barcelona Opera House. He gained international acclaim in a career of such length that he performed throughout the world and to all the great heads of state and other dignitaries.

Yet even having attained such unquestionable mastery of his instrument, throughout his entire life Casals maintained a disciplined regimen of practicing for five or six hours every day. On the day he died, at the age of 96, he had already put in several hours practicing his scales. A few years earlier, when he was 93, a friend asked him why, after all he had achieved, he was still practicing as hard as ever. To which Casals replied “Because, I think I’m making progress.”

So you see it’s never too late, there’s always room for progress. So let’s sticktooit folks, lets keep on practising, let’s keep “waxing on and waxing off”

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